Useful for me now

[It is a mistake to give] an absolute meaning to the epithet useful, which, in truth, has no more meaning if taken by itself than the words high, low, right, and left. It simply designates a relationship and requires a complement: useful for this or that.

I am teaching Simone de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity in my Existentialism class, and I’m struck again by what a great book it is. She elaborates the notion of Bad Faith with much greater clarity than Sartre. There are parts of the book that make me rethink myself and my present situation.

This is striking partly because of context: We spent weeks on Heidegger, who does phenomenology is the most abstract way and only has eyes for metaphysics. Then we spent weeks on Sartre, who dabbles in ethics and has some rich examples but never finds his way around to the ethical question. Sartre writes in Being&Nothingness (in a footnote!) that “the description of [authentic existence] has no place here.”

And now we’re discussing de Beauvoir, whose task is “to consider human life as a game that can be won or lost and to teach… the means of winning.”

Philosophy of emoji 😎

Over at Aesthetics for Birds, there’s a post about the philosophy of emoji. It’s mostly provocation, posing some issues, but it doesn’t make a direct connection to art. So, in the comments, I casually mention my work-in-progress paper on emoji art.

It’s a sufficiently cutting-edge topic that a number of the sources that the AfB article links to were not available when I finished my paper and sent it out scouting for rejection notices.

Philosophy of science under pluralism

First day of the Philosophy of science under pluralism conference at the Pittsburgh Center for Philosophy of Science. Saw lots of old friends, met lots of new ones, gave a talk on natural kinds.

Perhaps the winning quote of the day, from Stuart Glennan: “A lot of pluralism is just [that] you’re talking about different things.”

The picture was taken by Michela Massimi.

Words plotted thusly

Via Daily Nous, I came across a free set of text analysis tools by Voyant. You can paste in a passage or point it at some URLs, and it will chop it into words and phrases.

I let it chew on my book, and one of the products was this graph of word density:

word density

It looks all sciencey, like the kind of think that prop people might put on a screen in the background of a lab scene. It isn’t very informative, though. The curve has “species” dipping below zero, even though it occurs at least once in every segment.

I learned that “natural”, “kind”, and “kinds” make up about three percent of the words in the book. That three percent was, I suppose, the easiest part to write.

 

🙊

I just received a rejection notice from a journal. It was the kind of wordy but uninformative prose, filled with trivial but nonspecific detail, which strongly vibes form letter. The real give away was the salutation, which literally said “Dear Professor x”.

There’s an X-men joke to be made here, but instead… grumble, grumble.

Reheated cabbage about planets

Popular Science has a recent item about whether Pluto is a planet, prompted by a short paper from the NASA New Horizons team (Runyon, et al.). The paper argues for redefining ‘planet’. In the Popular Science article, Sara Chodosh tries to show “why this matters”. The back-and-forth about Pluto, she writes, is a sign that “we’re still learning”. But the problem is that the short paper doesn’t make any new arguments or reflect any new findings. Continue reading “Reheated cabbage about planets”

On the demise of Godwin’s Law

Godwin’s Law, as posed in 1990, was this: “As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” [1] As internet forums replaced the Usenet, people generalized Godwin’s Law: Given enough discussion about anything, eventually somebody makes an analogy with Nazis and kills the conversation.

It was initially posed as a descriptive law, like gravitation or electromagnetism. In recent years, I’ve seen people more often describe the invocation of Nazis as a “Godwin’s Law violation”. That requires treating it instead as a proscriptive law, a commandment like Thou shalt not make an analogy between your interlocutor and Hitler.

In 2017, we are living in a post Godwin’s Law world. It isn’t funny or provacative to draw analogies with Hitler, nor is it a norm violation to say that something is what Nazis would say, when the current political scene involves actual Nazis.

Of course, President Trump isn’t literally Hitler. But some small fraction of his political base are actual Nazis, he has emboldened them to sieg heil in public, and part of his political strategy is not to distance himself too far from them. When we can ask whether it’s right to punch Nazis, not as a moral thought experiment but as a question about something we saw on the news, then Godwin’s Law just misses the point.

Continue reading “On the demise of Godwin’s Law”

This is the biggest blog post ever

Liam recently blogged about epistemic isolation, a propos blatant lies of the nascent Trump administration. Trump continues to insist that the audience at his inauguration was the biggest ever. Liam wonders why one would spend so much time making trivial claims that are easily checked and which are egregiously false.

Liam’s hypothesis, which he elaborates by name dropping Kevin Zollman and  Han Fei, is that the strategy epistemically quarantines Trump’s core supporters. Perhaps more accurately, it provides an instrument by which they can quarantine themselves. The crazy lies provide a kind of litmus test by which core supporters can guide their belief formation, to rely on sources offering the alternative facts favored by their sect and avoid sources promulgating actual facts.

Charles Sanders Peirce, in The Fixation of Belief, describes this as part of the method of authority:

“If the power to [kill everyone who disagrees] be wanting, let a list of opinions be drawn up, to which no man of the least independence of thought can assent, and let the faithful be required to accept all these propositions, in order to segregate them as radically as possible from the influence of the rest of the world.”

Another possibility is that the persistent lying is just a kind of smokescreen, a distraction from other things that the administration is doing. Trump’s many executive orders receive some media attention, but not as much as they would receive if he and his proxies weren’t spending so much time lying about trivial issues.

Yet another possibility is that this is no strategy at all, that Trump is simply so vain that he cannot accept the possibility that his inauguration was not the most well-attended of all time or that a majority of voting Americans voted against him.

I do not have any way of knowing what actually motivates the current regime. As Peirce discusses it, however, the move doesn’t need to be a self-conscious strategy. Groups operating by the method of authority are unconcerned with even the concept of truth. The formation and maintenance of such groups might typically involve epistemic quarantine, because without it such groups wouldn’t form and persist. No explicit planning or strategy is required.

Self promotion

I got news today that my promotion from Associate Professor to full Professor has been approved by the university president and will be effective with the start of the Spring semester.

This is a difference that means nothing to people outside academia. It doesn’t really change my job any, because I was already department chair and already had tenure. I didn’t even put any thought into the prospect myself until I was pretty far along as an Assistant Professor.

There’s a raise in pay, but not enough that it changes the integer number of yachts I can afford to own. For those graphing yacht buying-power over time: Still zero.

Even so, colour me chuffed.